In early 2014, a couple years before a bizarre election season marred by waves of false stories and cyberattacks and foreign disinformation campaigns, thousands of Americans were asked to take a quiz. On Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform, where people are paid to perform microtasks, users would be paid $1 or $2 apiece to answer some questions about their personality and turn over their Facebook data and that of all of their friends. A similar request was also distributed on Qualtrics, a survey website. Soon, some people noticed that the task violated Amazon’s own rules.

“Umm . . . log into Facebook so we can take ‘some demographic data, your likes, your friends’ list, whether your friends know one another, and some of your private messages,’” someone wrote on a message board in May 2014. “MESSAGES, even?! I hope Amazon listens to all of our violation flags and bans the requester. That is ridiculous.” Another quiz taker ridiculed the quiz-maker’s promise to protect user data: “But its totally safe dud[e], trust us.”

Collecting the data was Aleksander Kogan, a Cambridge University psychology lecturer who was being paid by the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica to gather as much Facebook data on as many Americans as possible in a number of key U.S. states. The firm, backed by right-wing billionaire donor Robert Mercer, would later claim to have helped Trump win, using an arsenal that included, as its then CEO boasted in September 2016, a psychometric “model to predict the personality of every single adult in the United States of America.” With enough good data, the idea…

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